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A CurtainUp Review

The Legacy Codes
By Jerry Weinstein

The legacy stops here. --- Richard Fortier

On April 29th of 1999 The New York Times reported "Unsecure Codes Are Recipes for A-Bombs." Playwright Cherylene Lee, whether or not by design, parsed this metaphor, here used to describe the espionage investigation of nuclear scientist Dr. Wen Ho Lee, and made it literal.

In her program notes for The Legacy Codes, Ms. Lee offers that she was drawn to the case from the outset. Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a star scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, became the target of an investigation that alleged nuclear secrets were being traded to mainland China. The legacy codes in question were the classified algorithms necessary to run simulations of miniature nuclear warheads. Ms. Lee also saw these legacy codes as metaphors for the secrets passed between families. Legacy codes also carry a secondary meaning -- as archaic codes necessary to run complex computer programs -- permitting Ms. Lee to examine how cultural pride might run afoul, even in the melting pot of San Francisco.

The fact that Dr. Lee and his wife (a former CIA liaison) had made several visits to Beijing in 1988 made it easy for him to be racially profiled and, as a Taiwanese-born naturalized American, his patriotism as an American and his ethnic identity as Chinese were (at least superficially) irreconcilable.

In The Legacy Codes, Dr. Wen Ho Lee and wife Sylvia have been rechristened as Dr.Tai and Ming Liu. While the actual story of Dr. Wen Ho Lee is, on its face, compelling, Ms. Lee has taken further dramatic license. The FBI agent who interrogated Dr. Lee (Carol Covert -- I kid you not) is now the wife of the DOE intelligence officer who is investigating Liu. Not only are Nick & Nora on the trail of Dr. Wen Ho Lee and wife, but in this rarified landscape the two couples are entangled through their children, now star-crossed lovers. And the coup de grace? The DOE henchman is now the embittered son of Dr. Liu's mentor, Dick Fortier. For playwright Lee, this miscarriage of justice isn't about the missteps of an unbowed government bureaucracy, or a media bloodlust--it's a cross-fertilization of an Oedipal complex with a revenge fantasy.

When the Lius invite the Fortiers to break bread, on the occasion of renewing old ties and celebrating the friendship of the next generation, FBI spy Diane Fortier takes the opportunity to lift a cookbook from Ming -- ostensibly to refine her fusion cooking, but in reality she becomes convinced that Ming's annotations for star anise, crusted ginger, and soy sauce are code for nuclear espionage.

The problem isn't so much that Ms. Lee has departed from a chronology of events. Last year when Richard Greenberg gave us The Dazzle, loosely based on the storied Collyer Brothers, he admitted to doing little in the way of secondary research. He wasn't concerned with the details (Review). While that play didn't suffer from a lack of verisimilitude, sadly, The Legacy Codes is hobbled due to the lack of veracity.

Other emendations to reality are less than successful. There is an effort to make Erling Liu, Dr. Liu's graduate student son, a spoken word artist. While newcomer Jackson Loo is earnest, his raps fall short of Eminem's -- they lack power, complexity, and above all, poetry. In addition, they often signal a roundelay of monologues between each of the principals that takes us away from the flow of the narrative, and into a space of posturing and pedantry.

While the media unquestionably played a central role in the witch-hunt of Dr. Lee, it is a non-actor here. For the sake of witnessing history, I offer this timetable of events: On March 6, 1999 The New York Times leads with a page one story with the following subtitle: "China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs." The following day, March 7th, Lee's interrogators use the Times story as leverage, comparing the Lees to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They fail to coerce a confession. On June 14, 1999 the Times writes, "Lee may be responsible for the most damaging espionage of the post-cold war era." On December 10, 1999 Lee is arrested on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets. He is held in solitary, without bail, for nearly a year. Over that period an FBI agent recants his testimony and the case crumbles. On September 17, 2000 Dr. Lee is freed after pleading guilty to one charge -- the downloading of legacy codes. At his final hearing, Chief Judge James Park takes the unusual step of issuing an apology to Lee and his family. On September 26, 2000 The Times issues a 4,000 word mea culpa for the lack of balance in its reporting.

Both Les J.N. Mau and Wai Ching Ho make for fine stand-ins for Wen Ho and Sylvia Lee. Their acting is above reproach. It would have been prescriptive, however, to have seen them in the eye of the storm, enduring the scrutiny of the media and the trial itself, and redeemed with the ultimate exoneration of Dr. Lee. Now that is a story to be told.

The Legacy Codes
Written by Cherylene Lee
Directed by Ron Nakahara
Cast: Les J.N. Mau, Wai Ching Ho, Jackson Loo, Scott Klavan, Bonnie Black, Lindsey Gates
Costume Design: Ingrid Maurer
Set Design: Eric Renschler
Lighting Design: Victor En Yu-Tan
Sound Design: Christopher Plummer
Running time: 2 hours with a 10 minute intermission
Pan Asian Repertory Theater at the West End Theater in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St., 2nd floor. Phone: 212/ 279-4200
Schedule: Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Performances through November 23, 2003
Ticket prices: $45 and $39; $20 for students and seniors
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on a November 4, 2003 press performance

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